Two Farmington parents have filed a human rights complaint against the Hartford school system following a school field trip last fall in which students were asked to participate in a slavery re-enactment that got a little too real to the point the re-enactment actually included racial slurs and slave ship antics.
Sandra Baker said that her daughter, who is African American, and fellow classmates at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy were virtually humiliated and “terrorized” as they took part in an Underground Railroad exercise that was part of a field trip to Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Mass.
Sandra Baker insists that she, her husband, nor any parents were not informed that students would be part of a slavery re-enactment. Baker had to learn about the incident from her 12 year old daughter when she returned home from the trip.
“I said, ‘How was your trip?'” Baker said. “She started telling me what happened. I was like, ‘What?’ I was stunned. … We crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s. This, I didn’t see coming.”
Sandra Baker and her husband, James Baker, brought their concerns directly to the Hartford school board, complaining that their daughter and other students were subjected to “social and emotional abuse” during last November’s four-day school trip. The Baker’s daughter is now in 8th grade and has left the Hartford School system due to this ordeal.
According to the Baker’s daughter, the re-enactment exercise occurred on the third night and included abusive language and use of a racial slurs. But the “fun” didn ‘t stop there. Students were also packed together in a dark room to simulate what it was like to be on a slave ship. They also simulated hiding in the woods from “white masters,” who were of course played by instructors at Nature’s Classroom who were white. Basically the students were acting as slaves who had escaped.
Hartford schools spokesman David Medina said that because the human rights commission is “a quasi-judicial proceeding, our legal counsel has advised us not to comment.”
As far as Nature’s Classroom is concerned, they view themselves as a different learning experience for children. “At Nature’s Classroom we give students and teachers the chance to experience education from another perspective, outside the walls of the classroom.
Nature’s Classroom is a residential environmental education program, at thirteen wonderful sites in New York and New England. Most schools take advantage of our five-day program, while some decide that a shorter stay will work for them. After spending a week at Nature’s Classroom, living and learning together, students develop a sense of community, a confidence in themselves and an appreciation for others that carries over to the school community.”
Director of Nature’s Classroom, John G. Santos essentially said, the slavery re-enactment is an “activity that has validity, it’s an historical event, it’s a simulation.”
(FOR JAMES AND SANDRA BAKER’S FORMAL COMPLAINT with VIVID DETAILS – CLICK NEXT)
James Baker, BSE (ME), SM, MBA
Testimony before the Hartford Board of Education
Re: Underground Railroad Reenactment @ HMTCA field trip
September 17, 2013
Good Evening Chairman Poland and members of the Board of Education:
My name is James Baker. I am a Farmington resident here tonight with my wife Sandra to share some concerns we have about Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy where my daughter was a student last year. Specifically, I am here tonight make you aware of the sanctioned social and emotional abuse my daughter and her classmates suffered during a field trip with HMTCA. The field trip was to Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, MA and the abuse happened during the night of the Underground Railroad Reenactment portion of the trip 10 months ago, November 26-30, 2012.
Here is my daughter’s account of what happened in her own words. Starting with her entrance into a mock slave ship:
I was told about the reenactment about a 1⁄2 hour before it started.
The Ship (pretend ship)
Before we went into the dark room, we were lined up outside and asked to close our eyes and imagine having to run with our families in Africa. The slave master finds us and beats, stabs and kills my father in front of me and then takes me away from my family.
I went into a dark room where I had to sit on my bottom with my knees together; my legs fell asleep and were hurting. We were jammed together tightly touching each other. While in the dark room,
I was told by the instructor that we will go to the bathroom on each other, and some of us might throw up.
The instructor told me, “We don’t need any sick slaves. If you get sick we will throw you over board.”
I was told sharks were following the ship and that they could smell our blood.
I was told I may have to dance to entertain them
In the woods (later)
I had to pretend I was picking cotton, like a real slave.
I had to hold my head down and could not make eye contact with the white masters
I was told the slaves had to work until our hands were raw and bleeding
I heard the instructor ask the kids behind me to open their mouths so their teeth could
be checked. Some were asked to jump up and down.
I was called names by the instructors, but I can’t remember them
I was told “I was nothing” and that “I was their property
The instructor told me, If I were to run they would whip me until I bled on the floor, and
then either cut my Achilles so I can’t run again or hang me.
I was also told if I teach another slave to read or write they would cut my tongue out so I can’t
While running in the woods trying to make it to Canada I saw “wanted” signs for runaway slaves
I was also told that “God put me on this earth to serve them”
Although it has been 10 months since my daughter shared what happened on the trip, I still find it outrageous and irresponsible. We can’t comprehend how year after year the principal and a group of teachers could allow children to be demeaned, abused and terrorized. And that no one in this school administration was conscious of the potential psychological and physical harmful this activity might pose for all students. We trusted the principal and teachers and this administration to protect our daughter.
Many African American parents introduce the harsh experiences of slavery and other forms of discrimination to children over the course of their k-12 experience, and in a manner so as to avoid children developing a negative self-image about their culture and community.
Dr. Beverly Tatum in her book Why do all the Black Kids sit Together in the Cafeteria details the importance of developing a plan with developmentally appropriate educational activities to promote a healthy sense of racial identity. This activity evidences no such knowledge of racial identity development theory, which has been research since the 1960’s.
HMTCA practiced cultural insensitivity by placing African American students in simulations of slavery and racial bigotry. If the school placed Jewish kids in a harsh reenactment of Nazi death camps that would be equally problematic. Why because the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 demonstrated the power of role play on identity and behavior and how mind and body reacts negatively to simulations.
We are happy to address any questions that the board may have.
(TO SEE SANDRA BAKER’S TESTIMONY CLICK NEXT)
Sandra Baker, MSW
Testimony before the Hartford Board of Education
Re: Underground Railroad Reenactment @ HMTCA field trip September 17, 2013
Good Evening Chairman Poland and members of the Board of Education:
My name is Sandra Baker. You’ve just heard from my husband James. I wanted to provide some additional information to supplement his remarks for your consideration.
Please know that I do not come here lightly and have done my best to navigate the system on behalf of my child. For nearly a year I have been actively trying to make my concerns known through the policies and procedures available to me. I started with a formal letter to the principal, informal direct conversations with those involved with the field trip and moved on to filing formal complaints and contacting various organizations.
My husband just read our daughter’s account of what happened. Just so you fully understand how this whole experience impacted the class, I will share with you both some of the language used in the exercise by the facilitators and then some of the comments made by other students who participated in the reenactment.
The following comments were taken from the Nature’s Classroom Underground Railroad Report, which was completed by, the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy February 25 – April 18, 2013. I ask that you imagine these phrases being yelled at your 10 to 12 year old child and her friends: Here is some of the language used in the reenactment exercise:
“Bring those niggers to the house over there”
“Going to get the dogs to eat you”
“Nigger if you can read, there is a problem”
“You’re an animal working in the fields the rest of your life” “You don’t have any rights, we own you”
“Dumb dark skinned negro person how dare you look at me”
“How dare you look those dark eyes at me, I am higher than you” “Don’t look me in the eyes you’re worthless keep your head down” “You will be fed twice a day, water and crumbs”
“You’re not a person, you’re’ property”
“If you get sick, you will be thrown off the boat”
Now, hear comments from the students about the experience:
Felt like it was real, felt like a real slave
Did not feel like it was a joke, did not know if the leaders were joking
Uncomfortable with the yelling
Scary, too dark, hard to walk on the trails in the woods
Uncomfortable with not being able to talk, and lift up their head
Mad and angry about what some people’s ancestors had to go through
Angry that freedom papers were set on fire and burned by Nature’s Classroom Staff
Started to believe some of the things the group leaders were saying
Although it has been 10 months since my daughter shared what happened on this part of the trip, I still find it outrageous and irresponsible. I can’t comprehend how the principal and a group of teachers could allow our children to be intentionally demeaned, verbally abused and emotionally terrorized. Is this the best we have to offer our children?
As an African American parent, I carefully consider how my children receive messages about racial identity, and I do this because all too often these messages are not positive. There is no way
I would have allowed our child to participate in this aspect of the field trip had we be given the choice.
We have better and more positive ways of helping our children understand the experiences of African- Americans during slavery and on the Underground Railroad. Student accounts’ detail how the environment was racially charged and emotionally abusive. It had a lasting impact on all the children that participated, not just the children of color. Can we really expect fifth grade to seventh grade students to label an activity as inappropriate and excuse themselves from participating when their trusted principal and teachers put them into that situation?
Lastly, I ask that you consider how the decisions made by HMTCA and Hartford Public Schools, in regards to endorsing the underground railroad activity violates Connecticut’s Code of Professional Responsibility for Educators. The code states: (1) The school is to create an emotionally and physically safe and healthy learning environment for all students and (2) Consider the family’s concerns and perspectives on issues involving its children and encourage participation of the family in the education process.
A child stated “I was starting to believe what they were saying about me”. I hope this child and all the children who were harmed by the Nature’s Classroom trip are not permanently damaged and get the support they need to heal and develop a healthy cultural identity. To date, neither
the school nor the district has provided an opportunity to debrief parents on the activity, or provided for counseling or support services for students traumatized by this ordeal.
All children should be in a safe nurturing environment that encourages a healthy sense of their identity and cultural selves. Middle school, in particular, is a time to emphasize activities that build confidence in our children and help develop a positive vision for their future.
In closing I offer the following three recommendations:
1) Eliminate the Underground Railroad portion for the Nature’s Classroom Field trip.
2) Make sure parents are fully informed about the learning objectives & activities planned on each and every field trip.
3) Hold the adults who planned, supervised and participated in the reenactment responsible for their decision and actions up to and including issuing an apology, debriefing all the families affected by the trip (past and present) and reprimanding school leadership for the handling of this situation.
We’ve provided a packet of information for each of you. The packets contains: a copy of our testimony, and a copy of the Natures Classroom Report from HMTCA. In addition it contains a few letters to the editor from The Daily Hampshire Gazette from parents in Northampton MA who objected to reenactment and had it stopped in their school district.
I’d be happy to respond to any questions you may have at this time. Thank you.